WhatsApp sets its sights on the US

Tech

With over 2 billion users, WhatsApp is already one of the most popular messaging apps in the world. But the largest markets are all outside the US. Now Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp that was recently renamed Meta, hopes to change that.

Starting this weekend, Meta kicks off with the first-ever US marketing push for WhatsApp, focusing on the privacy afforded by the app’s encryption. The first TV ad will air on Sunday during the AFC Championship Game, comparing unencrypted messages to a stranger opening your physical mail. Similar ads touting WhatsApp privacy will soon appear on billboards across the country and online.

The goal of the marketing push is to get more people in the US to switch to WhatsApp by emphasizing the app’s security over other SMS methods like SMS, according to Meta’s head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart. “What we’re seeing in the US is that, especially in recent years with COVID, people are doing a lot more of their lives online,” he says. The edge. “But there’s a real gap in how many people use services with end-to-end encryption in the US compared to anywhere in the world.”

More than 5 billion unencrypted text messages are sent every day in the US, according to a 2019 CTIA survey. Much of that volume is likely spam and promotional messages, but SMS is also the default texting method for many Android phones, or used when someone is texting on iMessage using an Android device. Google is pushing hard for adoption of RCS, the long-awaited upgrade to SMS that adds features like read receipts and, in some cases, encryption. But Apple has shown no sign of wanting to add RCS compatibility to iMessage. Green bubbles are doomed.

Cathcart thinks the availability of WhatsApp on both iOS and Android is a selling point for those frustrated with the cross-platform texting experience. He says the company is working on making it easy for you to sync your chat history from an iOS device to any Android phone and vice versa. And last year, WhatsApp introduced fully encrypted backups — something Apple hasn’t yet offered with iMessage.

Given how poorly Facebook’s brand is perceived in the US relative to other parts of the world, the fact that this marketing push is coming after the rebrand to Meta is definitely useful for WhatsApp. Like the screen you see when you first open the app, the TV ad airing this weekend says WhatsApp is “from Meta” and not from Facebook. Cathcart insists that Meta’s rebrand wasn’t a factor in the timing of the US push; I am still skeptical.

Cathcart says the new Meta distinction is more likely to be more useful in other countries. “Outside of the US, I think it will be enlightening for a lot of people that we can now talk about Meta, the company and Facebook about the product,” he says. “We have seen confusion among users at times, especially those who are less advanced, [that] when you use the term facebookthey think the app and their friends are seeing something.”

As Meta knows from its own research, messaging apps tend to build strong network effects over time that can be hard to compete with. Apps like Snapchat and iMessage, and even Facebook’s own Messenger, are much more popular than WhatsApp in the US. It’s unclear whether a marketing push will change that.

No plans for RCS support

While acknowledging that SMS traffic moving to encryption thanks to RCS is a good thing, Cathcart says WhatsApp has no plans to add RCS compatibility. Since RCS is an open standard, Cathcart argues that adding support would slow down WhatsApp development. Before joining Meta more than a decade ago, he helped build early spam filtering technology for Gmail at Google, noting how difficult it is to quickly adopt the open standards that underpin email.

“Certainly to provide the level of security, reliability and ease of use that we are proud of, I think it would be very difficult,” he says of adding RCS support. “So we’re not working on that at the moment. I never say never. It’s great to see texting getting better. But one of the challenges with such a decentralized system is that you can’t really push its security, ease of use and reliability.”

Photo by WABetaInfo

While WhatsApp is primarily used for one-to-one messaging, WhatsApp is working on additional features for larger groups to make it easier to communicate, potentially putting it in more direct competition with services like Discord and Reddit. I asked Cathcart about an unreleased feature recently spotted in WhatsApp’s code called Communities. It seems aimed at extending large group chats with subgroups and more admin controls. According to Cathcart, WhatsApp is increasingly being used by groups of people such as schools and religious groups who could benefit from such features.

“As you can imagine, a principal would want to be able to delete messages sent within the school,” he says. “Is there a way to structure and control the administrators to help such communities? We think it’s an interesting product area for us to make WhatsApp better, given how many people have started using WhatsApp for this over the years.”

Aside from the competition with iMessage, WhatsApp’s biggest challenge to crack the US market will likely be its relationship with its parent company. An update to the privacy policy last year that clarified how chats with businesses on WhatsApp could be stored on Facebook’s servers, even though they’re still encrypted in transit, drew strong backlash.

“What we’ve learned is that really clear, simple, and understandable communication about privacy policies is very important,” Cathcart says. “This stuff can be complicated for people. And we saw a lot of confusion where people thought we changed something about the privacy of their posts, a lot of people said we could read their posts. None of that was true.”

As Mark Zuckerberg hinted last year, Meta plans to introduce a new umbrella account system that will allow users to manage their identities on WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and other products. It is part of a multi-year plan to eventually integrate the messaging architecture of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram so that users can communicate with each other.

The rollout of opt-in encrypted messages on Messenger this week is a first step toward more connected apps, Cathcart said. WhatsApp has thrived in much of the world thus far and has remained largely independent of its parent company. Now it’s a question of whether it can do the same in the US, even if it gets closer to the rest of Meta.

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